Fast Times at UTA

Ryan Amacher says he's leading the University of Texas at Arlington into a glorious future. But his critics fear his passion for pomp and party will run it into the ground.

Porter says faculty and deans have for years seen the school's focus as one of research and building strong curriculum and students. The focus has never been on athletics, he says. "Now, athletics is being presented as something we should foster, but at the same time, they're talking about building up research. How the two will fit together is not absolutely clear."

Nor has Amacher's autocratic management style made his schemes go down any easier. Some faculty and students complain he runs the university like a family-held business, doing what he pleases, sometimes in secret, with no regard to what the people who work or pay tuition there have to say.

For 10 months, Amacher led secret negotiations on campus between the Dallas Stars, the Dallas Mavericks, and the City of Arlington to lure the teams to Arlington with the promise of a new multi-purpose sports arena, to be built by the city on city property and used in part by UTA's athletic program. Amacher bragged how he had managed to keep the negotiations and a $110,000 arena study, paid for with public money, secret from Arlington citizens for so long. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, usually supportive of Amacher's proposals, wrote a scathing editorial criticizing Amacher for keeping the public in the dark about the study, then bragging about it.

Ironically, Amacher recently gloated to some Shorthorn staff members that he has gotten critical articles in the Star-Telegram killed and suggested the Shorthorn stop printing negative stories about him. After Shorthorn editor Elise Cooper, who says she was not in the room during Amacher's comments, confronted Arlington bureau editor Jim Witt about the matter, Witt said in an October 3 Star-Telegram column that Amacher had stopped by his office, but says they talked about "dirty tricks" being played on him, and that Amacher never requested a story be killed.

"I've had calls from him after a story has run to say he wished we hadn't published something," says Witt. "But he's never asked us not to run something. It's never even come up. They are sensitive about what they perceive as bad publicity."

In an effort to root out criticism on campus, Amacher has publicly threatened department chairmen to stop writing editorials or face demotion. And he has gone further, urging them to keep their faculty members from writing letters to the editor.

While rooting out critics and traveling around the country ostensibly to raise funds, Amacher has handed over much of the day-to-day operations of the university to Provost Dalmas Taylor. Departments that once had virtual autonomy in budgeting and hiring and promoting faculty, now have to seek Taylor's approval. Some members of the faculty have criticized Taylor in private and in print over what they deem micromanagement. Taylor, an African American, responded by telling the Shorthorn that the criticism stemmed from institutional racism.

In two and a half years, more than 17 deans and top administrators have left or been demoted, including Vice President of Business Affairs Dudley Wetsel, who has announced his early retirement effective in March. Those close to Wetsel say he is fed up with the new administration's spending priorities. Wetsel, who has held the position for 22 years, says he has contemplated an early retirement for several years. As to a clash with the administration over spending, he would only say, "I will say I have been told I am too conservative."

Still, Amacher has his supporters. "It's easy to blame the leader," says Eirik Furuboten, an economics professor who was on the presidential selection committee. "But these are hard times for everyone. Twenty years ago, Amacher would have been hailed as a hero. He's just coming along at the wrong time to be fully appreciated."

One thing on which everyone agrees is that in its 100-year history--UTA will celebrate its centennial in January--the university has never seen such division and upheaval. Last spring, about 250 students protested over Amacher's decision to consolidate graduation ceremonies, traditionally done by department, into one huge ceremony. UTA students, notorious for their complacency, hadn't held a protest since the Vietnam War. When Amacher received death threats over the plan, he attended graduation with a bodyguard.

The negative publicity comes at a time when UTA's image is already reeling from allegations of racial bias--between 1989 and 1992, African American professors dropped by 7 percent, while white professors rose steadily, according to state records. And, last year the school was embarrassed when history professor Howard Lackman was arrested after a student claimed he had tried to lure her into a prostitution ring. Charges against Lackman were later dropped.

"The University is like a wagon going down the street with all the wheels coming off it," says one former dean.

Ryan Amacher ushers a reporter into his newly redecorated offices. The suite has high ceilings and tall, arched windows that let in streams of sunlight. Floor to ceiling bookshelves filled with books and a wooden rolling ladder grace one wall; a pair of bold abstract prints hang on another wall. His office oozes culture and good taste. Amacher is dressed in a chamois-colored shirt that coordinates with the chamois-colored, plush sofas. His tie, a work of art in a blue silk-screened abstract design--a gift from his wife--coordinates nicely with the blue carpeting. Amacher leans back on one of the sofas and sips coffee from a blue and white china mug. At 49, with prematurely silver hair, a brushy mustache, and big, kind eyes, Amacher looks more like the Gepetto of Disney's Pinocchio than a man who has provoked a suburban university to the point of death threats.

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